Though it may be a distant memory for some of us, it’s only been around six months since the 2022 midterm elections. As we reflect on the extraordinary efforts of grassroots organizers, it's clear they played an enormous and outsized role. They advocated for (or against) crucial ballot initiatives across the country, registered thousands of voters and drummed up support for community initiatives. Those successes are the clear result of pounding the pavement to garner support for various programs and policies, giving a voice to those who have been historically marginalized, counteracting misinformation campaigns, and clearing roadblocks to voting. In short: community power.
The hard work of community organizing is the most effective way to build community power. Yet time and again, we have seen two major obstacles stand in the way of that goal: the sharp drop in funding that occurs after an election year, along with the tendency of many funders to compartmentalize issues that are in reality deeply intertwined.
The drop-off in funding following an election year — what our partners in the field call the boom-and-bust cycle — forces grassroots organizations to contend with peaks and valleys in revenue before and after national election cycles. These stark fluctuations create obstacles for retaining or hiring staff in “off-cycle” years, making it difficult to maintain momentum. This problem is particularly acute in communities of color or low-income areas, in contrast to majority-white or middle-income communities, where organizations often enjoy year-round support. Fluctuating funding levels create a structural barrier that makes it especially hard to maintain engagement and advocate for the equitable implementation of new policies or hold recently elected officials accountable.
Coupled with the boom-and-bust challenge is a phenomenon we’re calling issue compartmentalization: funders’ tendency to laser-focus on a single issue rather than prioritizing the big picture. To address the way people experience a given issue, we need to address the entire power imbalance that exists around it. To build real power, grassroots organizers need to fulfill the interconnected needs of their community members, regardless of issue. Changing a law on paper while ignoring the obstacles people face in real life does little to address the power imbalance at the root of folks’ interconnected challenges. Strategically removing these obstacles is a surefire way to use philanthropic dollars to shift power to local communities.
Here’s how we believe funders can address both of these shortcomings.
Breaking the boom-and-bust cycle
As collaborating funders, Way to Win, Democracy Fund Voice, and the Climate Equity Action Fund support hundreds of organizations working at the intersection of climate equity, democracy and journalism. We consistently hear from grantee partners about how the sector’s boom-and-bust approach to civic engagement and electoral funding is destructive and destabilizing. As funding partners who make multi-year commitments to these groups, we’ve witnessed organizations forced to drastically slash staffing, programs and benefits. While we often step in to fill funding gaps, this is a problem the entire funding community must address to ensure we do not weaken the movements we intend to nurture.
To help disrupt the boom-and-bust cycle, each November, the Climate and Clean Energy Equity Fund — a 501(c)(3) that neither funds nor engages in partisan political activity — makes large “off-cycle” contributions to its grantee partners. In November 2022, it saw dozens of community organizations facing budget shortfalls, and provided large grants to partners in Minnesota, Florida, Pennsylvania and other states to sustain their programming and capacity for mobilization during the 2023 legislative sessions.
Similarly, Way to Rise, the 501(c)(3) arm of Way to Win, stepped in to support Arizona Center for Empowerment (ACE) — a grassroots organizing group that drives BIPOC voter turnout and increases community engagement. Following the 2020 national election, ACE experienced an enormous funding cliff as many of its donors determined that the acute needs around the election were met and, as a result, did not renew their funding. This left the organization staring down budget shortages and the prospect of significant staff layoffs.
Way to Rise supported ACE with a one-time, $500,000 bridge grant to fill its revenue gap. This bridge from one funding cycle to the next enabled ACE to sustain its community organizing work through 2021 without a single staff layoff, as well as conduct robust preparation and training to gear up for the challenging election years ahead.
Organizations working around the clock to build power to protect our democracy, ensure an inclusive clean energy economy, and create a free, democratic press don’t turn on and off with election cycles, so their funding should not stop and start either.
Supporting across movements
We have seen from our collaborative work that another key piece of the power-building puzzle is broadening the aperture: funders should look across and fund movements more holistically, rather than creating artificial lines between “issue areas.”
Our collaboration is premised on the theory that our respective fields of journalism, democracy and climate equity are interconnected. We know a strong democracy, community-centered media outlets and equitable climate action are all crucial for a high-functioning society. Each of these spheres has enormous influence upon the day-to-day functioning and quality of life for every single American. We believe that by working together, we can strengthen organizations within all three movements to an even more profound degree than we could on our own. We do so by sharing challenges, jointly funding organizations and collaborating on topics that affect each field.
Because the prevailing approach within philanthropy is to develop targeted funding strategies, supporting a broad swath of organizations working across movements is not particularly common. Even though many funders may instinctually recognize that many issues are interrelated, that understanding may not translate to their funding decisions.
We urge funders not to limit themselves by only funding one or two issues. First, consider what other movements influence your priority fields. For example, democracy protection relies on robust local journalism to share helpful information and combat misinformation, so funders interested in democracy may also want to fund organizations seeking to strengthen local news. Additionally, funders should consider funding location-based organizations that seek to build up community voice more broadly in regions of interest. Those organizations can be responsive to issues that arise organically, strengthening the foundation for movement-building in the area overall.
As funders plan their giving in 2023 and beyond, we urge them to think about building community power to foster strong, sustainable grassroots movements. Consider the following proven tactics:
Level out funding swings by consistently giving multiyear general operating support and streamlined grants. Long-term funding enables groups to invest in infrastructure, build up resources and maintain talent year over year.
Give general operating support bridge funding and consider making additional grants to support work after elections. Donors can provide bridge funding in an off-cycle year; ask organizations about what funding gaps they anticipate and commit to filling some (or all) of those gaps.
Consider funding across interrelated issues to build community power. This funding approach empowers organizations to work in ways that reflect how community members experience issues as interrelated in their daily lives.
To ensure the long-term health and effectiveness of the movements and causes you care about, the time to give is now, and the way to do it is in partnership.
Jenifer Fernandez Ancona is the co-founder, vice president and chief strategy officer at Way to Win.
Jodeen Olguín-Tayler is the vice president of strategic partnerships for the Climate Equity Action Fund.
Josh Stearns is the senior director of the Public Square program at Democracy Fund Voice.